Art Zoyd - 44½: Live And Unreleased Works album review

RIO icons’ opulent Holy Grail

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While the musical evolution of legendary bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd can be roughly divided into album-sized chunks, the music of Art Zoyd has long felt like an ongoing and remorseless process: music made to evolve in real time, within and beyond its apparent initial potential. Ostensibly part of the Rock In Opposition movement, the amorphous French crew share very little with Henry Cow beyond a fearless, intrepid spirit: something that will come in very handy if you take the plunge into this frankly mind-boggling box set.

Apparently designed to plug the gaps between the band’s studio records, thus illuminating a greater degree of detail in Art Zoyd’s relentless shape-shifting, 44½ is simply a monolithic challenge to the senses: 12 audio discs, two DVDs, and barely a moment contained within that doesn’t sound fervently, almost aggressively original. Drawn from various periods in the band’s lengthy history, this is plainly not meant to be consumed in one sitting. The first disc alone – a sizzling, partial performance of 1986’s Berlin album in that same city – contains more ingenious or perverse ideas within its 74 fluid minutes than most bands have teeth and toes. The act of describing what Art Zoyd actually sound like risks straying into dancing-about-architecture territory, but there are elements of 20th century classical music, free jazz, experimental electronics and all manner of shadowy art rock indulgence bubbling away at the heart of pieces such as Epithalame and A Drum, A Drum. Undeniably and persistently cinematic in execution, hypnotic melodies and rhythms disintegrate and reform in new shapes, sometimes played by what sounds like a chamber orchestra, sometimes by a futuristic jazz ensemble and sometimes what could easily be some spectral Einsturzende Neubauten tribute band. In fact, the two DVDs of live footage present the slight drawback of allowing us to peek behind the creative curtain and see who is doing what at any given time. In truth, the kind of extraordinary, genre-defying music that Art Zoyd are making on disc three’s document of a 1996 show in Copenhagen, for instance, is so thrillingly visual in the first place (not to mention the actual soundtrack for Danish director Benjamin Christiansen’s 1922 film Häxan) that prosaic live performance footage doesn’t quite cut it. It all sounds incredible, however.

Diehard fans will ignore the hefty price tag and treat this like some kind of opulent Holy Grail, and rightly so. For the uninitiated, this might seem like a ludicrous place to start, but there is a wild, wonderful and frightening world to be explored here, and it’s always worth taking a punt, right?